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This month seems to be flying by in more ways than one. It’s mid-October already and the colorful leaves that are the talk of tourists everywhere are at their peak or, sadly, past peak, and we who live in the Northeast know what that means!
Ducks and geese are moving around as well. It’s a tad early for any serious migration to be taking place, but I’ve noticed that there are new and different flocks of birds on the local ponds every day. Also, it seems that the loons have moved on as well, or at least they’ve gone silent. There were several of them flying around uttering their patented warbling wail almost daily all summer, but I’ve noticed a singular silence during the day now.
All of these are signs of the changing seasons. There are those who will lament the passing of summer, but leave it to Maine sportsmen to find the good side of all this.
For one thing, grouse hunters, the ones who prefer to shoot their birds on the wing, can’t wait for the leaves to come down. It’s difficult enough to see enough of these speedy flyers to get a shot in the open woods, but until all that pesky foliage is on the ground it’s pretty much poke and hope, and nine times out of 10 the bird wins at that game.
Many folks think grouse (partridges or biddies, as we Mainer’s like to call them) are easy targets, nothing more than barnyard chickens with an odd penchant for pecking around the edges of gravel roads in October. Shooting grouse on the ground is legal and as traditional as it gets in the Northeast, but there is a persistent contingent of sportsmen who won’t shoot at a partridge till it has left the ground. This high-minded thinking, of course, reduces the hunter’s success rate by 90 percent or more. Most of the great upland hunters of the last 100 years or so who have taken the time to write books on the subject consider three birds per box of 25 shells to be the average. One wildlife biologist I knew kept meticulous records of every bird he flushed, every shot he fired and every bird he brought home and he came up with an average of about two birds per 25 shots fired.
Back in the days when I was young and spry, sharp-eyed and quick on the trigger, I was able to cut my October average down to three shots per bird, or about eight grouse per box of shells. Of course, I had a few things going in my favor aside from the benefits of youth; I hunted with black Labs, which I’d trained to flush birds in my direction (most of the time!) and I used an over-under shotgun that had special chokes made for grouse hunting in thick cover. Any bird inside 20 yards had a difficult time dodging my shot, but beyond that I may as well have been throwing sand at them. So, I picked my shots and waited for clean shots at under 20 yards. Had I shot at every bird that got up in front of me my average would have been much lower.
From a hunter’s standpoint, grouse are the most convenient game birds we can hunt in Maine. There’s no need to go out at 5 a.m., sit in a blind or shiver on a stump as most deer and duck hunters do. Instead, it’s almost required that grouse hunters wait till 10 a.m., or till the dew has come off the grass, before heading out. These birds are smart enough to wait on their roosts till the low cover has dried up for the day. Once they begin feeding they’ll stay on the ground till just before dark, when they head for the roost once more.
Grouse hunting in late October is similar to walking a mine field. The most successful hunters side step slowly through the woods, keeping close to the edge cove where brush and saplings meet the dense forest. This is where grouse spend most of their daylight hours, looking for insects, tender greens, nuts and other ground-level forage. If there are apple trees nearby they will get into the branches to eat not only the ripe fruit but also (and mostly, from crop inspections I’ve made) the leaves and buds.
Experienced grouse hunters move slowly through such cover but aren’t necessarily looking for birds. Instead, they are listening for the first sounds of a flushing grouse, that sudden, loud and disconcerting batter of wings that lifts them off the ground and from zero to 60 in about half a second. Novice hunters will be left standing in shock and dismay, still looking for a bird that is already long gone.
The trick in this game is to get the gun up and pointing in the direction of the flushing bird the instant you hear those staccato wing beats, and in the same motion swing ahead of the bird and pull the trigger. The idea is to have a charge of shot headed where the bird is going to be, not where he is. Aim at a grouse and you will miss every time, but swing ahead and shoot at a point three to five feet in front of him and you have a chance.
All of this, of course, takes place in less than two seconds – I’ve timed it! Success grouse shooting requires the best of the hunter’s focus, instincts, hearing and reflexes, and, as we’ve seen, most shots will still go awry. Even if grouse flew straight and in the open (which they don’t), the odds would still be heavily in their favor.
Some hunters won’t even go grouse hunting till after the leaves are down, which can add another second or so to the shooter’s window of opportunity. Adding a visible target to the formula does change things, but only slightly.
Give it a try this week and then let me know how “easy” grouse hunting in Maine can be!
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